Managing your manager

It really makes a difference in your life if you can figure out how to manage your boss. That almost never means actually telling him or her what to do—most bosses do not take kindly to that, as one would expect. But being able to step outside the relationship, depersonalize the interaction and figure out which moves on your end are going to get you what you want is an invaluable ability. It can make the difference between a dysfunctional and a functional relationship, even if the other person is inherently dysfunctional themselves. In fact, some dysfunctional managers are the easiest ones to manage: they are so clueless when it comes to personal interactions and what really works that making them think things have gone their way (while actually getting your own) is REALLY easy. Like, you-feel-guilty-easy because they were so simple about it, but at least the thing turned out the way you needed it to. And some people greatly benefit from some outside, benevolent manipulation--manipulative behavior doesn't have to be a bad thing, it only becomes damaging when the big picture is ignored in favor of more personally selfish goals.

Sometimes it’s not so easy though, and the hardest part for women particularly is depersonalizing interactions to the point where you can control the dialogue. Interpersonal objectivity is hard for us girls, we tend to react to everything in relation to ourselves and how we feel about ourselves. If someone is an ass, it’s upsetting (uncontrollable fight-or-flight reaction)—you want to avoid interacting with them at all, and it is hard to stand up under a real-time assault and keep your bearings enough to know what to do about it. If someone is too nice, it can be really hard to get them to act on issues that require more hardassedness, and (if you’re not an ass yourself) to make sure they are getting the benefit of the outcome you want to make happen when they can’t. But with all kinds of people and all kinds of relationships, it is possible to move beyond the level of “how do I feel about this?” to “how can I make this person feel the way I need them to about this?”

Obviously there’s no list of rules or tips for this kind of skill, and some people just have an unconscious knack for it. But it’s not impossible to learn how to better control your situation and interactions, and it makes you feel like your life is more your own. Practice is the best way to get better at it, practice with an open mind to what you can learn from a bad situation.

7 thoughts on “Managing your manager

  1. Great post! And I love the blog name! Learning how to make each successive boss relationship work well is the most important thing in any new job. My managers have all had very very different personalites and MOs - I'm only just now getting a handle on my new boss!

  2. Oh how I love this post. There is an excellent book entitled 'Lab Dynamics' By Cohen & Cohen- which has a special section on managing your boss. I've known people very good at this, and people who think they are good at it but aren't- and people who are wretched at it.

  3. I have had two PIs for my postdoc, and one of them is a little harder to communicate with than the other. The easier one is very transparent about his management in general, and is a part-time amateur psychologist--so he ends up being a home for refugee grad students who had problems in other labs. He helps them struggle through it all. He helped me struggle through the hard times I had communicating with the other PI. He and I had many funny, totally non-offensive and fascinating conversations about how to learn to not be like a girl, get over my "feelings" and figure out how to get people to do what I wanted them to without them realizing it. I used some of the tactics on him from time to time, I don't think he noticed...

  4. I like your blog in general. You have the kind of attitute I really like to see in young scientists. I'm in a very similar position in life (will start TT, but I postponed it a year) and will be reading your blog.This is a great point. It's one of those things that took me a while to learn but in retrospect, is invaluable. I am a hot-tempered, emotional and kinda opinionated person and it took me a while to control these parts of me from clouding my vision at work. The main secret for me is to "calm the f*** down". Take your time, days if needed. And come back to the situation having worked out the angst to some extent. I learned, as you say, by practice. I was "unlucky" enough to have a brilliant, but totally disorganized and not at all hands on PhD supervisor. I am not by nature an organized person myself but after some time I realised, if I was to get this phd thing finished, I was going to be running the show... Looking back, it helped me get over all the emotional reactions - the "Why me? why don't I have Glinda the Good witch kind of advisor? Why do I have to do this and this?" thoughts.. No use.. You got the situation you got and how can you make the best out of it? (Obviously my advisor had many excellent qualities, otherwise I would have tried to leave the lab..)In my postdoc, I had two supervisors like you and it became even more transparent how you needed to "manage" each of your managers to get the best outcome out of the situation..But it's important as you note, that this is not about selfish gains. When you get stuff done, feel happy and leave the lab on a good footing, it's good for you. But it's also good for your advisors! I am wondering, now that you are off to have your own group and will become the manager in more and more relationships, do you see any of these insights applying in reverse? Or is managing non-managers a qualitatively different kinda thing?

  5. Thanks ace!I do think what I learned will help with managing 'mentees' as well. I have a harder time structuring the interaction when I am in the manager role, and I have a tendency to want people to 'like' me too much so sometimes I don't build the most effective precedent in the beginning of such relationships. I'm going to work on that with my future group--finding my own balance between being a hardass and being supportive. I am also hot-tempered, but also too nice, lol, so I swing back and forth too much. I want to learn better how to communicate to people what is expected of them in an authoritative way while still motivating them to want to make/keep me happy (since that tends to be more constructive than making things antagonistic).

  6. I completely get the hot-headed/nice thing since I am the same... It makes me surprised sometimes how I can be totally opinionated and not mind putting myself out there one moment and then it will always be so important to me that I am liked, and even more so, that "we can all get along"... I've been giving a lot of thought to the change from postdoc to asst prof lately and yes, we do need to figure out ways of communication that is authoritative but also positive. But hey, probably we'll figure it out with practice right? I'll look forward to reading more of your posts.

  7. One of the best pieces of advice I ever received was to never use the phrase "I feel" in a presentation (no matter how informal) or when interacting with a "boss". As you suggest, "I feel" is to girly---you never hear a male use that phrase during the Q & A after a presentation, yet I hear female grad students (and even post docs ) use that phrase far too frequently. While that situation isn't a direct interaction with a boss, it certainly shapes the way others view you. Thus far, I have been pretty successful in my mentor/mentee interactions, but I'd love to hear other tips.

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